This isn’t my first Jack Ketchum book. I’ve read Off Season, Right to Life, Red and a couple others, so I know to expect a story from Ketchum that’s gut-wrenching and grim. The Girl Next Door certainly fits the bill, probably the bleakest of the novels I read last week. I saw the movie when it came out a few years back — complete with Ketchum cameo as a carny — so I was already familiar with the plot. A faithful adaptation of the novel, it was very good for a low-budget indie flick.
Quick synopsis: A young woman is tormented by neighborhood boys in 1950s suburbia. Teenage Meg and her younger sister Susan move in to the Chandler household after their parents die in a car crash. Single mother Ruth Chandler has three sons of her own, so she considers the girls an additional burden. Meg quickly forms a friendship with the boy next door (the book’s narrator), Davey. Over the course of a summer, the Chandlers’ disregard for the girls escalates from neglect to full-blown abuse. Eventually Meg is chained up in the basement, beaten for entertainment and left to starve (and worse) while all the neighborhood kids watch out of twisted fascination. Ruth Chandler even urges them to join in and use Meg to act out their sickest fantasies.
Ketchum writes in the afterword that the novel is based loosely on real-life events that happened in 1965. I don’t find that hard to believe, especially after recent news out of Cleveland involving the abduction and torture of three young women over a decade. Truth is always stranger than fiction.
If Lord of the Flies portrays what happens to children free of adult supervision, The Girl Next Door depicts what happens when kids are encouraged by a parental figure to act like animals. The main character, Davey, never directly participates in Meg’s exploitation, though he’s well aware of what’s going on next door. It takes him two months to grow a conscience (finally!) before he resolves to help Meg and Susan escape their captors. Sadly, that escape attempt doesn’t go as planned, which leads to the most depressing ending since John Fowles’ The Collector.
Ketchum gets the reader invested in Meg and Davey’s blossoming relationship, and he takes great care to make Meg a three dimensional person, not merely an object of desire that the other boys see. We like Meg; we root for Meg; we want to see her triumph over her kidnappers . . . and then turn on them with suitable retribution. This never happens, which leaves readers in the lurch. What’s a revenge fantasy without the vengeance? If you want to see that, pick up Dean Koontz’s Intensity.
I have two minor quibbles with the story itself. First is with Meg’s sister Susan. The girl is underutilized, used only as leverage against Meg. For example, if Meg refuses her cruel treatment, punishment will befall Susan. This forces Meg to endure the most atrocious behavior out of love for her sibling. Susan, however, is never brought to life as her own character.
The other issue I have is a bit broader. The book is told from Davey’s point of view, much later in his life as he looks back at the terrible events from the summer of 1958. This gives him time to reflect on the choices he made, and for him to realize what monsters they were as children. He knows he should’ve acted sooner to help Meg. This is the only right way to tell the story; otherwise, the reader would have zero sympathy for Davey. No, my objection comes when young Davey finally decides to help Meg. He has a guilt dream about Meg that almost (but not quite) makes him tell his parents about what’s happening at the Chandler house. This is the moment when our protagonist — I won’t use the word hero, because there are no heroes in his book — goes from reactive to proactive. This is a big deal, big enough that a mere nightmare doesn’t do it justice. I would’ve liked to see some more dramatic event impel Davey into action: having the other kids force him to hurt Meg, for instance.
Nitpickings aside, this was a great book. It’s an emotionally draining read, and afterward makes you feel like you’ve just run the gauntlet of a street gang.
This Book is AWESOME